Anonymity Necessary?

by pgbh

News hit last Wednesday that the US government has shut down online drug marketplace Silk Road. If you view the world in terms of traditional institutions vs. anonymous internet users, this may seem like a step backwards:

“It is with a heavy heart that I come before you today. A heart filled with sadness for the infringements of our freedoms by government oppressors, and a heart filled with sadness for the pain that all of you whom have lost everything are feeling…. [Silk Road] has shown that free people can engage in consensual free-market transactions for any good or service that they desire without societal or community breakdown, nor the need for enforcement from jackbooted thugs. Silk Road as an experiment has shown that the idea of the free-market is one that works, and works exceptionally well….”

More in the same vein here. This comes relatively soon after NSA spying revelations, which attracted similar rhetoric from similar quarters. Meanwhile I’m left wondering why internet anonymity is so fetishized to begin with.

Yes anonymity can be useful – if others disagree with you on what actions are right, hiding your actions might help. But I see no reason to suppose that more anonymity will promote good actions more than bad ones.

And yes anonymity has traditionally been standard on the internet. But this seems to be more a historical accident than anything else. For much of the past anonymity has been rare, and if anything reputation has helped promote positive behavior. And internet communities which introduce reputation seem to experience the same effect.

Sure anonymity has much-touted uses. But it seems to me that in most cases those uses don’t apply – but meanwhile many internet users remain scared of giving out personal info or having their usage tracked. Given that, I can only conclude that anonymity is overhyped.